A film review by Craig J. Koban


2009, R, 95 mins.


Gerard Butler: Kable / Amber Valletta: Angie / Michael C. Hall: Ken Castle / Kyra Sedgwick: Gina Parker Smith / Alison Lohman: Trace / Chris "Ludacris" Bridges: Humanz Brother

Written and directed by Neveldine/Taylor

The only thing that would have made GAMER even moderately tolerable is if it came with its own ‘reset’ switch.  

As a fairly avid video game player myself, I can attest to the fact that even the most undesirable first-person shooters I have encountered have given me the pleasure of turning them abruptly off when I want to.  Unfortunately for GAMER, I was not so lucky sitting in a darkened theatre while being remorselessly bombarded with all of its crude, lewd, deafeningly loud, and teeth-clenching hyperactive imagery, the latter trait that I could very aptly describe as being the absolute worst from the aesthetic playbook shooting style of Michael Bay...but cranked up to eleven. 

I like dumb, immoral, and blood drenched action spectacles as much as the next red-blooded man, but how can one enjoy the carnage in GAMER when – nearly all throughout its agreeably short running time – it is next to impossible to make any logical sense out of what’s happening?  GAMER is most certainly an empty and soulless thrill ride, to be sure, but its hyperactive, seizure-inducing barrage of sadomasochistic techno gore and wanton mayhem leaves a whole hell of a lot to be desired.  There has rarely been a film shot in such an utterly incomprehensible way that completely alienates viewers like GAMER.  The best analogy is that its directors – the entity known as Neveldine/Taylor (more on them in a bit) - employ handheld digital cameras, chaotic pans and tilts, headache-causing editing, and just about every other schlocky cinematic trick in the book to create action scenes that seriously look like something vomitted on the screen.  I was dizzy within five minutes of this film: action pictures should excite and thrill and not deplorably entice viewers to rush to medicine cabinet for pain relief.  GAMER is a film that requires Tylenol tablets to be given out beforehand at the ticket booth.   

The film’s technical sheen is a wholehearted and miserable failure, but what’s even more oddly condescending about GAMER is what a hypocritical film it is from a thematic point-of-view: its laughable attempts at finger-pointing social commentary are inept at best.   What this futuristic, dystopian sci-fi flick is trying to say, I think, is that the vast global commercialization of video game violence has in fact destroyed the moral fabric of society.  Yet…honestly…GAMER is a gratuitously explicit and bombastic auctioneer that is the very epitome of the brainless, commercialized, and easily digestible mega-violent entertainments that it is also lambasting.  This is an ultimate case of the pot calling the kettle black: GAMER unintentionally festers within its own glaring double standards. 

If the film’s hypocritical stance was not enough, then its ultimate undoing is that its premise is not altogether original, especially when one considers that it dives into the dangers of computer technology against human free will (been there, done than) and the fanatical loyalty people have towards reality-based, freak show blood sports (definitely been there, done that).  Now, GAMER certainly has a nifty and inventive arc in its story, but its never truly developed and embellished: it’s just an anchor for the film’s unbridled savagery.  The story takes place at an unspecified time in the future when society has essentially been living vicariously on the Internet (okay…maybe this is not so high concept and futuristic).  Incredibly advanced video games have become the predominant mode of entertainment for the masses, which allows players to fully control other living, human avatars.  One game in particular is the most popular and fiendish of them all: it is a sickeningly violent shoot ‘em up game very appropriately called “Slayers” where players from around the world are able to control death row inmates in battles against other players that involve a considerable amount of ammunition fired, things being blown up, and many human beings being killed in grisly ways. 

Now, how do the gamers control these inmates?  Mind control, silly.  Actually, it’s a bit more technical than that.  By radically altering the human avatars' brain chemistry, players are able to make them do whatever they want or say via a computerized mind link, which has been concocted by the game’s designer, billionaire Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall, in a laughably terrible debut performance here), who has made such a vast fortune off of Slayer and other games that his earnings have far surpassed Bill Gates.  Now, much like in THE RUNNING MAN, the inmates do have one insurance policy: if they are able to make it through 30 battles – with the help of their gamer users – then they will be freed immediately.  One of the current and very popular heroes of the game is Kable (Gerard Butler) who is played by a teenage user named Simon (Logan Lerman) and looks poised to actually securing his freedom.  

The ordeal of playing one deadly and superhumanly impossible game after another is hellish enough for Kable, but he continues to do so for a chance to get out of his virtual reality prison so he can be returned to his wife, Angie (Amber Valletta), who is also the unlucky participant in another different reality-based video game herself (which is arguably the sicker of the two).  Of course, there is a secret underground resistance (led by Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, in a lamentably underwritten role) that wants to get Kable free so that they can all show Castle’s game for what it really is (yet, don’t the billions of people that tune in to watch this simulated game with real human guinea pigs realize that it is a form of torture and imprisonment against one’s will?).  Unfortunately, the vile, ruthless, and cunning Castle uses all of his monetary and technological resources to ensure that Kable never makes it out alive. 

Again, the idea of human avatars being played by bloodthirsty teenage boys is interesting enough, but the script never allows it to gestate into something more compelling.  Instead, the film goes the cheapest and sleaziest jokes possible while exploring the depraved future world of Internet and video game fanatics (for example: there is a cheaply perverse recurring image of a mostly naked, chronically obese man that salivates like a sexual deviant at every turn of the VR games he plays in).  The sim-styled game that Kable’s wife, for example, participates in is truly a reprehensible and woman-degrading spectacle: it is populated by real people that are totally controlled by their master users, right down to their names, clothing styles, twisted sexual proclivities, and immoral mannerisms.  One simmed character in particular, named Rick Rape (hardy-har), is a putrid creation and very aptly named (played in a seriously embarrassing "wtf was he thinking" performance by HEROES’ Milo Ventimiglia).  His user mimes all of his actions, which mostly is reduced to being a sleazy abuser of women.  Hmmm…do these games not have moderators? 

Yet, going on about the film’s seedy veneer may be beside the point, seeing as there are little attempts made at story or character development.  All that Neveldine/Taylor are interested in is the most basic of rudimentary plots to serve as a crutch for the maelstrom of auditory/visual noise their maliciously throw at viewers.  Using lightning fast edits, strobe lighting, digital visual effects, an intensely hurried and dizzying queasy-cam sensibility, and a barrage of other mind-numbing sleight of hand manipulation, the directors throw caution – and cadence – out the window.  The self-indulgence of their nauseating style easily shows their self-congratulatory obsession with making GAMER look cool and hip, which has the opposite intended effect.  Even the swiftest looking video games around today have a sure-footed tempo and flow regarding the action; we usually can make sense of what’s happening in them.  GAMER thinks it's submerging us within the look and feel of what it would be like to be in a game, but there’s rarely a moment where it feels truly transformative, mostly because the action is just unfathomably frenzied and bewildering.  How any player could manipulate Kable through these games is one of the film's great mysteries. 

The performances, alas, are equally atrocious.  Kyra Sedgwick, Alison Lohman, Amber Valletta are all fine actresses, but their participation here smells of a knee-jerk attempt for a quick pay check.  What’s truly frighten is just how hideously wrongheaded Castle is played by Michael C. Hall, making his big screen debut from the small screen (he’s the very secure and solid epicenter of HBO’s freakishly good DEXTER).  Hall definitely has a strong screen presence and a cocky bravado to boot, but as Castle he seemingly hits every broad and overplayed note, hamming it up to incredulous levels of overkill (it’s one thing for a performance to be one of reckless abandon and to come out swinger for the rafters, but the undisciplined Hall here is borderline aggravating).  Strangely enough, it is Gerard Butler himself – not usually given credit for being a “good” actor – that gives GAMER’s most understated and grounded performance. 

Some readers out there may be giving their collective heads a shake by wondering how I could be so calculatingly spiteful of GAMER while previously giving high and supportive praise for Neveldine/Taylor’s two past films, CRANK 1 and 2.  I think the answer is rather clear:  The CRANK films had no pretensions for being something they were not.  Both of them – especially the sequel – had a sort of reckless, unrestrained, and unflinchingly broad sensibility, so much so that I was willing to embrace and accept all of its unapologetic freakishness and inventiveness (that, and the films made me laugh uncontrollably after awhile at all of their uninhibited behaviour).   Those were mindless, tasteless, and immoral films, but they were categorically fun.  There is no freewheeling joy in GAMER, just overbearing artifice that only serves to disorient instead of entertain.  On top of that, it’s one of those really intellectually vacant and smugly obvious films that tries to preach a sobering message about society’s exploitative lust for murder and sadistic brutality while simultaneously being guilty of committing the sins it's chastising. 

When the fun is lost as it is here, then it most certainly is 'Game Over", indeed.

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